Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Where Am I On The Gender Spectrum?

People of almost any age, sometimes as early as age 3, may be uneasy or seriously unhappy with the gender role their parents and other agents of socialization (relatives, teachers, neighbors, and other members of the person's community) have attempted to encourage. They may be seen as significantly gender variant. They are typically and fundamentally unhappy with the social gender role or gender expression expected by parents, teachers and others who have known them since an early age. If this situation persists, the person may eventually be diagnosed as showing what therapists have historically referred to as "gender identity disorder." However, another way of looking at this is that it is actually others who are unhappy with the person's gender expression. Others seek to shape the person as they feel they should be rather than respect them as they are. What is commonly referred to as gender is actually a spectrum of feelings, presentations, and actions found in males and females in different places and times.

Many reflective people have probably wondered what it is like to be a member of the "other" gender; if a woman, what it is like to be a man, and if a man, what it is like to be a woman (although in general, fewer men tend to publicly acknowledge cross gender speculations). Some have carried opposite gender desires a step further, and may have actually experimented with changing gender roles, perhaps after discovering, in extreme cases, that their personal experience of gender does not match their genital sex and the gender role or expression assigned or expected since birth.

Hence, the significantly gender variant child, adolescent, or adult typically shows an orientation commonly found in what is ordinarily called the "opposite" gender. Because this sometimes generates confusion and fear in others, people who are markedly gender variant may suffer discrimination and pain. This may be inflicted by others who hold rigid, polarized, two gender world views concerning how others should act or behave. These negative, painful reactions to one's behavior may contribute to significant impairment in a person's ability to function in his or her social, educational, and work settings. The anxiety and stress produced by rejection and gender expression or role censorship can be profound. Professionals, specializing in gender issues, now know there are a variety of ways to handle such situations. Parents, for example, can be educated regarding raising a child with mixed or alternative gender expression. An adult, who is markedly gender variant, may seek other ways to live his or her life. A person can hence explore other paths with less pain and more opportunity to develop one's potential.

In other words, individuals who are uncomfortable with their gender may explore a spectrum of alternative gender roles or expressions. Or, perhaps, using another approach, a person might blend gender roles, or make small changes in one's current gender expression to gain a degree of comfort.

On the other hand, changing gender expression is often an emotionally tumultuous and risky venture. Hence, some may find it desirable to delay or postpone any form of change. It is also possible some individuals may have discovered unique ways of dealing with gender expression presently unknown to professionals.

Ambivalence regarding one's gender role may also be a major factor in the generation of conflicting emotions. Some individuals with significant gender issues occasionally feel significant conflict with their motivations to change or accept their socially assigned gender role. They may discount their feelings or reject their motivations to adjust or change. Denial or suppression of feelings is common. Exploring feelings of shame, self acceptance, feelings of ambivalence, or self-loathing, in therapy or counseling may help a person achieve some resolution and obtain a measure of peace. Sometimes a starting point is asking: 1) What do I want? 2) What must I do to accept who I am? And, 3) Is my gender negotiable; do I want to live my life for myself or others?

Furthermore, almost without exception, gender expression and role issues are very difficult for families, spouses and significant others to understand. Hence education is essential. In addition, counseling and connection with support groups for significant others may help reduce the stress and confusion a family experiences as a person explores issues and finds a life path that works.

Twenty or so years ago, mental health professionals tended to see the "gender dysphoric" population as often having significant psychopathology and mainly composed of those with extreme internal pressure to surgically change sex. In contrast, today we recognize persons with gender expression and role differences compose a very heterogeneous population with a variety of personal issues. There are many different paths available to these persons who, as a group, are now often referred to as transgender. Gender variance is a fundamental characteristic of people around the planet and we are increasingly aware of it.

In some cases, a person may feel better making subtle changes in one's gender role. For others, a part time exploration of a different role (perhaps while participating in a transgender social and support group) might produce valuable information concerning what needs to be done. For still others, comfort might be obtained by transition from a masculine to a full time feminine gender role, or the reverse.

A person might use a variety of strategies or technologies to change his or her appearance and behavior. For instance, a person may access the powerful technologies of behavior change, hormone therapy, and plastic surgery to closely approximate the target body and gender of the preferred sex.

In other cases, one might use some, but not all, of these various technologies or change procedures. For example, a person might experiment or play, part time, with dressing as a member of the other gender and, with time, learn to feel good and accept oneself as a cross dresser. Still another person might do this full time, including working as a woman or man, perhaps while taking hormones associated with the experienced gender. Sometimes marked discomfort with one's body is a central component of one's experience. Hence, some might find it very important to have surgery so their inner experience, sense of self, social role and body all match as closely as possible. In essence, in the latter case, a person makes the outside (appearance and behavior) more closely match the inside (sense of self). Many experience new feelings and emotions as they change in multiple ways.

Hence, presently, it is clear there is really a spectrum of people who seek help dealing with different levels of gender role concerns. In many cases the various feelings that motivate significant gender expression or exploration are profound and life long. Many are searching for solutions to their gender issues. A common characteristic is that all seek life paths that will work for them. This article is for those persons (and interested others) as they embark on a journey to explore possible solutions and find a gender expression that fits.